Jane Austen and her World

I wrote six novels between the age of ten and sixteen and the stories just poured out but, every now and then, I’d stop and think about a particularly grown-up word I wanted to use and feel pleased with myself when I found it. Naturally, I always looked forward to the next Big Scene – like the love scenes – and I have to confess that the occasional renunciation love scene always left me in tears.

Port Carnow Cove, Cornwall, from print in E. Hawksley’s collection

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 In the 21st century, Church of England clergy are hard-working men and women – usually running a number of parishes, as well as struggling to pay for the upkeep of churches which may be in need of serious repair. They are expected to have several services on Sundays, possibly in different parishes, and to see to the spiritual needs – and often the material needs, if the parish is a poor one, of their parishioners. They are also pretty poorly paid.  Still, at least they can count on a roof over their heads and the job carries a pension and the security of knowing that they will have somewhere to live once they retire.

Henry Tilney at Woodston, Northanger Abbey

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Sir Gareth Ludlow, is one of Heyer’s quiet heroes; he’s tall, good-looking, rich and has impeccable manners; but he is, perhaps, a touch dull when the story opens. Being an excellent uncle to his lively nephews and nieces is all very well, but that’s not, in itself,  going to make any female reader’s heart beat faster. He needs a problem which the reader longs for him to sort out. His presenting problem is that his beautiful and adored (but spoilt and wilful) betrothed, Clarissa, was killed in a carriage accident seven years previously, leaving him broken-hearted. His only brother was killed at the battle of Salamanca, and, if the baronetcy is not to die out, then Gareth must marry and father an heir. Thinking he’s past the age of falling in love, Gareth decides to offer for the dowdy Lady Hester Theale who has been on the shelf for years.

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, 1956

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In 2013, Joanna Trollope published Sense & Sensibility, one of the Austen Project books which aimed to re-write Jane Austen’s novels, scene by scene, but in a modern setting. I have only just read it, and I can’t understand how I came to miss it – perhaps because 2013 wasn’t a good year for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and she has an interesting take on Margaret Dashwood.

Jane Austen after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery

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This post is in two parts. This week I shall look at the role of Margaret Dashwood, firstly, in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility and then I’ll contrast it with Emma Thompson’s depiction of Margaret Dashwood in her Screenplay of Sense & Sensibility which won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Screenplay, as well as earning Emma Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The differences are interesting.

19th century glass inkwell

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In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery. Sometimes it was a simple grassy area with shrubs and a few trees; sometimes there was an attractive bench beside a winding gravel path where a young lady could sit and enjoy nature; and it could be as large or small as the owner wanted. In essence, it was the antithesis of the more formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature.

Formal gardens proclaimed the owner’s status

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Georgette Heyer’s Venetia was first published in 1958 and it is one of the books I turn to when things are difficult. It was one of Georgette Heyer’s own favourites, she called it (and The Unknown Ajax) ‘the best of my later works’. Lord Damerel’s journey from a cynical rake, gambler, drinker and profligate to a man who is worthy of the heroine, Venetia, is a long, thorny path with many twists and turns. He had had a difficult childhood with cold, censorious, unloving parents which turned him into dissolute libertine and a man who allows himself to be cast as a villain by others. It takes him much of the book to realize that its a role he’s outgrown.

Cover by Arthur Barbosa for ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer, 1958

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My late 19th century copy of Manners and Rules of Good Society by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’ deals with everything a novelist or reader could possibly want to know about how Society operated and, as far as I can tell, the same rules applied in the Regency period. This week, I want to look at the knotty question of how one introduces somebody to someone else with regard to Jane Austen’s novels, or, indeed, any Historical novel set before the First World War.

‘Manners and Rules of Good Society’ by a Member of the Aristocracy. My copy is an 18th edition which dates from 1892

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This week, I’ve been reading up on late 18th to early 19th century’s ladies’ underwear. What, I found myself wondering, was the difference – if any – between stays and corsets; or smocks, shifts and chemises?

I discovered that the Radical essayist and poet Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), had something to say about it.

The 19th century corset – constraining or revealing?

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